Best of the decade: Who made list of top 50 athletes?

Ten years. In the world of sports, it can seem like an eternity.

As this decade began, the Yankees were reigning World Series champions, the Saints were about to win the franchise’s first Super Bowl title, Kobe Bryant was on his way to leading the Lakers to back-to-back NBA titles and Tiger Woods – with 14 major victories by the age of 34 – was seemingly a lock to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18.

How things have changed. The Yankees, Saints and Lakers have yet to return to the pinnacle of their sports, and Woods went 11 years before winning his 15th major.

Then again, some stars who ruled the sports world in 2010 have managed to stay on top. Which ones deserve recognition as the greatest athletes of the past decade?

Thirty-five members of the USA TODAY Sports staff voted to determine the top 50 athletes of the decade. Points were given in descending order, so an athlete who was voted No. 1 received 25 points, followed by No. 2 receiving 24 points and so on. Point totals are in parenthesis.

1. LeBron James (786 points)

The start of the decade coincided with James entering his prime, having just turned 25. He delivered, playing in eight NBA Finals and winning three titles, being voted MVP twice and winning a gold medal in 2012. Plus nobody has scored more points since the start of the 2009-10 season than James. But it's his impact off the court that elevates James beyond other athletes of the 2010s, adding to his philanthropic efforts and becoming a leading voice on social and political issues.

2. Serena Williams (781 points)

Narrowly beat out by James, Williams is arguably the the greatest tennis player in history with 23 Grand Slam tournament singles titles, more than any man or woman in the Open Era. Not all of those majors came in this decade, but winning 10 of them – as well as Olympic golds in singles and doubles – after turning 30 might be an even more impressive feat.

3. Tom Brady (742 points)

A sixth-round draft choice in 2000, Brady's career has spanned two decades, and he's still going strong at 42. In the 2010s, he won two MVP awards (2010 season and '17) and led the Patriots to five Super Bowl appearances and three Super Bowl titles (2014 season, '16 and '18).

4. Simone Biles (740 points)

Biles hit the elite gymnastics scene as a 14-year-old in 2011. Two years later she claimed her first world championship gold medals, winning the floor exercise and all-around competitions. She won eight more golds at worlds in 2014-15 before leading the USA to team gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Individually, Biles won gold in the floor exercise, vault and all-around competitions with a bronze in the balance beam. After taking 2017 off, she returned by winning seven more individual golds at the 2018 and 2019 world championships.

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Simone Biles celebrates after winning a gold medal during to the women's floor exercise final in the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games at Rio Olympic Arena. (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY Sports)

5. Usain Bolt (654 points)

Bolt was already an international star and Olympic champion when the decade started. But he added to his legacy by becoming the only sprinter to win gold medals in both the 100 and 200 meters in three consecutive Olympics (2008, 2012, 2016). He also won 11 gold medals at the track and field world championships from 2009 to 2015. And he currently holds the world record in both the 100 and the 200.

6. Mike Trout (610 points)

Trout made his major league debut in 2011 at 19 and a season later won the AL Rookie of the Year award and finished second in AL MVP voting. He hasn't slowed down since. An eight-time All-Star, Trout has won three MVP awards and finished second four times. The only blemish on his career is a lack of postseason success, but he's only 28.

7. Steph Curry (571 points)

The seventh overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft, Curry quickly established himself as one of the game’s best shooters. He led the NBA in 3-point field goals for five consecutive seasons, including a record 402 in 2015-16. An All-Star in each of the past six seasons, Curry was named the league’s MVP in 2015 as he led the Warriors to their first NBA title in 40 years. The following year, Curry repeated as MVP as the Warriors finished with an unprecedented 73-9 record but lost the NBA Finals in seven games to the Cavaliers. Entering the 2019-20 season, Curry and the Warriors have represented the Western Conference in each of the past five NBA Finals, winning three.

8. Lionel Messi (570 points)

In the decade’s greatest soccer rivalry, Messi comes out slightly ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo. A prolific goal-scorer, Messi has won a record six Ballon d’Or awards (five this decade) as the world’s top player. He has spent his entire pro career with Barcelona, where he holds the record of six Golden Boot awards as the leading scorer in the top division of the five major European leagues. The native of Argentina is his country’s all-time leading scorer with 70 goals in 138 international appearances. He also led Argentina to the 2014 World Cup final.

9. Michael Phelps (541 points)

Although many of his accomplishments came in the 2000s, Phelps arguably did enough alone in this decade to be considered the greatest swimmer in history. Following his unprecedented eight gold medal-winning performance at the 2008 Olympics, Phelps cut back his schedule – winning four golds and two silvers in 2012 in London. He was chosen as the U.S. flag bearer for the 2016 Rio Games, then added another five golds and one silver. His victories in the 200-meter butterfly and 200 medley made him, at 31, the oldest individual champion in Olympic swimming history.

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10. Novak Djokovic (479 points)

Men's tennis has been ruled by three players this decade. Of the three, Djokovic holds the upper hand. Of his 16 Grand Slam tournament titles, 15 have come since 2011 – including all five Wimbledon crowns and six of his record seven Australian Open titles. His 2015 season, in which he won three majors and reached the final in a fourth, is considered one of the greatest in history.

11. Katie Ledecky (443 points)

Ledecky is quite simply the most dominant freestyle swimmer in history. At 15, she claimed her first Olympic title in 2012, setting a record for an American and winning the 800-meter freestyle by more than four seconds. Breaking world records and going undefeated in every international final she entered between the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, Ledecky hit more milestones at the 2016 Rio Games. She won gold in the 200-, 400- and 800-meter free, posting world-record times in the 400 and 800 that still stand. All told, she’s set 14 world records.

12. Kevin Durant (398 points)

Starting in the 2009-10 season, Durant led the league in points five years in a row with the Thunder, went to the 2012 Finals, was league MVP in 2013-14 and won Olympic gold medals in 2012 and 2016. But Durant didn’t become an NBA champion until he joined the Warriors in 2016. He won back-to-back titles (winning Finals MVP) and was the leading playoff scorer last season until he was hurt before the Finals.

13. Rafael Nadal (396 points)

The King of Clay won the French Open eight times during the decade and three of the four Grand Slam tournaments in 2010. He’s the reigning champion at the French and U.S. Open. Nadal was ranked No. 1 for 140 weeks, including now, and No. 2 for 133 weeks.

14. Cristiano Ronaldo (387 points)

He signed with Real Madrid before the turn of the decade and dominated, scoring 40 or more goals three times and winning back-to-back Ballon D’Or awards in 2013 and 2014 and 2016 and 2017. He was named the top forward as Portugal won UEFA Euro 2016. He transferred to Juventus in 2018 and led that team to a first-place finish in his first year.

15. Aaron Rodgers (297 points)

The Packers' quarterback was MVP of the 2011 Super Bowl XLV win against the Steelers, throwing for 304 yards and three touchdowns. He was NFL MVP in 2012, when the Packers went 15-1, and he had a career-best 4,643 passing yards and 45 TD passes. He picked up six All-Pro nods and won 10 or more games seven times, including this season.

16. Roger Federer (273 points)

He began the decade ranked No. 1 and finished No. 3. There was a lot of fluctuation in there, including a drop to 16, but he won five Grand Slam tournaments and the Federer-Nadal rivalry remains fun to watch.

17. Sidney Crosby (268 points)

The hockey world wondered if the Penguins' star would be able to return from a concussion suffered in the 2011 Winter Classic. He spent parts of two seasons on the sideline but came back strong. He led the league with 104 points in 2013-14 to win MVP and was playoff MVP twice as the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 2016 and 2017, the first NHL team to do that since the late 1990s.

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Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) has been one of the most dominant players in the NHL since he's entered the league in 2005. (Photo: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports)

18. Clayton Kershaw (256 points)

The Dodgers' pitcher dominated in the regular season, winning the Cy Young Award in 2011, 2013 and 2014. He was voted National League MVP in 2014, when he went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA. He hasn’t been able to repeat that dominance in the postseason, though, with a combined 5.40 ERA in World Series games.

19. Alex Ovechkin (239 points)

The runaway NHL goal-scoring leader of the decade. The Capitals' star scored his 600th  goal on March 12, 2018, and is closing in on 700. Ovechkin eliminated the one blemish on his career by winning the Stanley Cup in 2018.

20. Carli Lloyd (217 points)

A force on the U.S. Women’s National Team, she scored the winning goal in the 2012 Olympics, was captain of the 2015 World Cup team and had a hat trick in the championship game against Japan. She scored three goals in the 2019 World Cup as the USA repeated as champion.

21. American Pharoah (160 points)

Yes, horses are athletes too. American Pharoah won the Triple Crown in 2015, the first to do so since Affirmed in 1978. He took the Kentucky Derby by 1 length, the Preakness Stakes by 7 lengths and the Belmont Stakes by 5½ lengths. Trained by Bob Baffert, American Pharoah went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the first to win all four races in one year.

22. Floyd Mayweather Jr. (154 points)

Mayweather added to his perfect record by winning nine fights in the decade, including a 10th-round TKO of UFC fighter Conor McGregor in August 2017. That gave Mayweather a 50-0 record, surpassing Hall of Fame boxer Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 mark. Mayweather announced on Instagram in November that he was “coming out of retirement in 2020,” but no bout has been scheduled.

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